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50 Things We Know Now (We Didn’t Know This Time Last Year)

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Published:   |   Updated: December 30, 2013 at 05:36 AM

Man, oh man, the stuff you miss during the year when you’re too busy texting, making Angry Cat photos and unsuccessfully signing up for government health plans.

Like the news story in October out of Umbria, in central Italy.

Scientists there were very excited because they had found what they believed to be the first example of fossilized ambergris.

Stay with me on this. It’s going to be worth the ride.

Ambergris is a fatty, waxy looking substance secreted inside the digestive tract of sperm whales to protect them from sharp objects they swallow, such as giant squid beaks and fish bones and teeth.

The ambergris they found is the first discovered in fossil form because it usually disappears in the ocean.

To put it more bluntly, ambergris is whale poop.

Oh, and ladies? Fresh ambergris is used to make perfume.

Geologists discovered the fossil while surveying the remains of a Pleistocene ocean in Umbria. Twenty-five mineralized lumps sticking out of 1.75-million-year-old rocks caught their attention.

It’s oddly comforting to know someone out there is getting paid to look for whale poop. It sort of says that we’ve got the big issues of the day locked down enough to go looking for Moby Dick’s caca.

But most of us probably missed that story. There’s a lot of noise in the world.

Here are 50 other stories of fresh discoveries during the past year that may have escaped your attention:

1. The morning-after pill Norlevo, an emergency contraceptive manufactured in Europe, is completely ineffective in women who weigh more than 176 pounds.

2. A new top predator dinosaur named Siats meekerorum roamed North America tens of millions of years before T. Rex. The remains of the 4-ton, 30-foot animal were discovered in Utah.

3. Being bilingual can help delay dementia by an average of 4.5 years.

4. A group of Neanderthals in northern Spain cannibalized their neighbors during winter, including one slaughtered group with three children aged from 2 to 9, three teenagers and six adults.

5. The coldest place on our planet is located on a ridge along the East Antarctic Plateau. On a clear winter night, temperatures can dip below minus 133.6 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 92 degrees Celsius).

6. Chimpanzees use long-term memory to remember the size and location of fruit trees and feeding experiences from as far back as three years prior.

7. Sixty percent of all lice are now “super lice,” meaning they are resistant to the chemicals that are traditionally used to treat them. That percentage is rapidly growing.

8. Astronomers discovered the most distant galaxy ever. Its light took more than 13 billion years to reach Earth. The system, which can be found in the night sky above the handle of the Big Dipper, creates more than 330 stars a year — 100 times faster than our Milky Way galaxy.

9. Eucalyptus trees draw up gold particles from deep in the soil through the water absorbed by their root systems. The gold, probably toxic to the plants, is deposited in leaves and bark and is shed before it accumulates.

10. A chemical found in chilies boosts levels of “brown fats” linked to preventing weight gain.

11. A new type of Botox is believed to be the deadliest substance known to man. Its DNA sequence is being withheld because an antidote is not known. Just 2 billionths of a gram of the protein, or inhaling 13 billionths of a gram, will kill an adult.

12. Ukrainian astronomers predict a 1,300-foot-wide asteroid named 2013 TV135 will hit earth on April 13, 2036. NASA experts who track space junk say odds are against a strike.

13. All mammals urinate for roughly the same amount of time, 21 seconds, regardless of their size. The mathematical model of animals is now known as “The Law of Urination.”

14. Sleeping changes the cellular structure of the brain and cleans the brain of a toxic buildup that might lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

15. Fossil evidence indicates that Neanderthals used toothpicks to alleviate gum disease and inflammation.

16. African elephants are able to understand human gestures instinctively, no matter whether they have been trained to do so. Their understanding is akin to that of human babies.

17. Birds locate food in the morning but don’t actually eat it until much later in the day. Feeding patterns were discovered after researchers fitted 2,000 small garden birds with radio tags that activated when they landed on feeders.

18. Human breasts sag faster than other parts of a woman’s body because of an independent biological clock that speeds the aging process by as much as two to three years. Healthy breast tissue that sits near a cancerous tumor is an average of 12 years older.

19. Kissing is the ultimate social taste test men and women use when looking for a relationship that lasts. More frequent kissing in a relationship was linked to the quality of a relationship but not to a greater frequency of sex.

20. Chimpanzee friendships are based on similarity of personality. The most sociable and bold individuals prefer the company of other highly sociable and bold individuals, while shy and less sociable ones spend time with other similarly aloof and shy chimps.

21. A slow caress or stroke, the touch often instinctual for mothers to give their children, may increase the brain’s ability to construct a sense of body ownership and, in turn, play a part in creating a healthy sense of self.

22. A small, black pebble filled with diamonds found in the Libyan desert is the first evidence of a comet hitting the earth. The impact took place 28 million years ago.

23. Chemical processes within Earth’s atmosphere remove trace gases and pollutants, essentially making it self-scrubbing.

24. The left and right hemispheres of Albert Einstein’s brain were unusually well connected by the corpus callosum, the nerve highway joining the two sides. This may have allowed more synapses between the hemispheres and contributed to his brilliance.

25. Commonly used words on Facebook accounts can indicate gender, age and distinct personality traits. Women are more likely to use words like “excited,” while men are more inclined to swear.

26. Propylene, a chemical essential for the creation of plastic on Earth, has been found on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

27. Aspirin may be ineffective in preventing recurrent heart attacks in as many as 1 in 5 people.

28. The moon is about 100 million years younger than previously thought. It is around 4.4 billion to 4.45 billion years old.

29. Two species of tawny brown singing mice that live deep within the mountain forests of Coast Rica and Panama sing in order to protect their turf.

30. A team of physicists experimenting with photons discovered a completely new form of matter that sticks light particles together in a solid mass, working in the same way as the light sabers used in “Star Wars.”

31. Tamarin monkeys lower their voices to keep others from hearing what they’re saying.

32. Oxygen, a key component in the formation of complex organisms, was present in the Earth’s atmosphere 700 million years before previous estimates.

33. Four new species of legless lizards were discovered near Los Angeles International Airport among oil derricks and sand dunes at the end of an airport runway.

34. For women, smelling a newborn baby feels as good as drugs to addicts or cheeseburgers to those just breaking a fast.

35. Large eddies in the southern Atlantic Ocean behave mathematically like black holes, with water paths surrounding them circulating so tightly that nothing caught up in them escapes.

36. Blood taken from a woolly mammoth trunk frozen in Siberia for 10,000 years with its red meat, skin and hair in good condition could be used to recreate the species.

37. Underwater waves 800 feet tall were found in a deep ocean trench three miles beneath the surface near Samoa in the south Pacific Ocean.

38. The Earth will continue to be habitable for another 1.75 billion to 3.25 billion years, until it travels out of the solar system’s habitable zone and too close to the sun.

39. The waxy buildup inside the ear of deceased blue whales reveals how much exposure an animal has had to chemical pollutants over the course of its lifetime.

40. West Antarctica’s massive Ross Ice Shelf ice-sheet is hiding an estuary where fresh water from rivers mixes with salt water from the ocean.

41. The world’s first known venomous crustaceans were found in deep caves off the coast of Western Australia. The small, blind, centipede-like “remipede” kills other crustaceans by liquefying them with a chemical compound and then sucking the fluid from its victim’s body.

42. Heart disease patients with a positive attitude are more likely to exercise and live longer. The most positive patients exercised more and had a 42 percent less chance of dying during the follow-up period.

43. A mutation in a gene causes some people to be more prone to a strain of the herpes virus that causes cold sores.

44. Earthworms survive as long as three weeks during droughts by “shrink-wrapping” themselves in a self-created mucus-chamber to reduce the amount of surface area exposed to the soil.

45. As little as one glass of wine is enough to interrupt communication between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, the two parts of the brain that control behavior. The breakdown could explain the disinhibition, aggression and social withdrawal symptoms associated with being intoxicated.

46. Neurons in the brains of mice can be switched off to make them more resilient to bullying by other mice.

47. The world’s oldest globe of the New World, dating back to the early 1500s, was found. The previously unknown artifact was carved onto two grapefruit-size hemispheres of ostrich eggs, possibly by a worker influenced in Florence by Leonardo Da Vinci.

48. Wolves howl to express the quality of their relationships and to provide a sound-based beacon to help a wandering wolf find its way back to the safety of the pack.

49. Oceanographers discovered Tamu Massif, the world’s largest volcano, beneath the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 miles east of Japan. The volcano, which is 145 million years old and the size of New Mexico, went dormant a few million years after it formed.

50. Dolphins have a signature whistle they use to identify each another that effectively functions as name. No two whistles are alike. It is not yet known how the dolphins get their names.

jhouck@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7324

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